Happy Camp teachers make their home at school nearly 2 years after fire tore through California town
After the Slater Fire burned through Happy Camp in autumn 2020, the town’s school district came up with an innovative way to make sure some of its displaced teachers and staff had homes. They built a mini mobile home park on campus while their homes were, and are still being, rebuilt.
The plan helped keep the school operating over the past two years, Happy Camp Union Elementary School District Superintendent and Principal Derek Cooper said.
Five trailers make a semicircle behind the school. Cooper bought one for his use. The Karuk Tribe, which accounts for more than half the town’s 861 residents, purchased the other four and are loaning them to the school free of charge, Cooper said.
Cooper came up with the idea to house himself and other staff on site when he arrived in Happy Camp in late summer, 2020. “There were already very few rental properties or houses to buy in the area,” said Cooper, who lived in a hotel during the first few months of his tenure as superintendent.
One idea he proposed was to set up his trailer on school property, promising to also help with campus security.
Then on Oct. 8, the Slater Fire “wiped out all options” for finding rentals or other housing for himself or future hires, Cooper said.
The fire destroyed 197 structures. Half the families in town reported losses, including 10 of the 22 people working for the school district, Cooper said. More than a third of the school’s student and staff population was homeless.
Starting a little mobile home park for staff and faculty seemed the best way to keep his district operating, he said.
In 2021, Cooper and his team won a $541,000 Project School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) grant, said Karen Mix, a consultant with the school district.to help fund mental health support services for students and staff, and to pay for electricity and other services for the school and its little mobile home park.
Other organizations used trailers to solve the housing shortage after the fire.
The Karuk Tribe set up 94 trailers for displaced people: Tribal members and other Happy Camp residents, the Tribe's CFO Laura Mayton said.
Other residents went to live with relatives or friends, or set up their own trailer in town, Cooper said.
Now, 20 months after the fire, rebuild efforts are ongoing, he said. The district's mobile home park still houses four staff and a teacher.
While mobile homes and trailers help with the immediate housing issue, there are no simple solutions to the long-term recovery of the school district and its community, Cooper said. Lack of housing and Happy Camp’s remote location — it’s a 90-minute drive west from Yreka — make it difficult for the school to attract new hires.
Short-term, local hotels are no longer an option, either, he said. Rooms are often occupied by contractors and other people who are part of the rebuild and forest restoration effort.
To help with the staff shortage, school employees are doing more than one job. The district’s bus driver also works as a yard supervisor and kitchen assistant, Cooper said. Some staff became substitute teachers when no credentialed teachers applied for jobs. Other positions are filled by students’ family members.
The school district is the third largest employer in Happy Camp after the U.S. Forest Service and the Karuk Tribe, he said.
The Slater Fire started five miles north of Happy Camp in the Klamath National Forest. It merged with the Devil Fire, which started a day later in north of Upper Devil's Peak in the Klamath National Forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Combined, the fires destroyed 157,229 acres in northern Siskiyou County, eastern Del Norte County and southern Oregon before firefighters fully contained the blaze in mid-November.
The fire is blamed for killing two people and injuring at least 12 more, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office reported.
It’s the school’s responsibility to help children “make sense of the destruction,” Cooper said.
Jessica Skropanic is a features reporter for the Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. She covers science, arts, social issues and entertainment stories. Follow her on Twitter @RS_JSkropanic and on Facebook. Join Jessica in the Get Out! Nor Cal recreation Facebook group. To support and sustain this work, please subscribe today. Thank you.